Jeff Benedict and Emily Neece, both people of faith, are on opposing sides of the abortion debate. Each of them has experiences and reasons for arriving at those positions.
Benedict, a member of Community of the Savior on East Henrietta Road, is pro-life. Neece, a former member of the progressive Catholic Spiritus Christi Church and a former Planned Parenthood board member, believes women should be able to make their own decisions.
When these two walked into a small-group discussion, organized by the Rochester Beacon and Good Conflict on religious views and abortion, they had no idea how things would go.
“I drove with a friend, a person I to go to church with, so we had good conversation. Just for that it was a wonderful evening,” Benedict says. “And then when we arrived, it was boy, what’s this all about? … And I was excited to exchange and hear other people’s thoughts that might be different than mine.”
Says Neece: “I assumed that there were going to be maybe equal numbers of people on both sides of the issue. And based on that, that there could be a little more heat around our conversation.”
The first in a series, the project is a partnership between Good Conflict and the Rochester Beacon designed to examine whether individual beliefs and perceptions about contentious and polarizing topics can be expanded through written and video journalism and moderated discussions using the Good Conflict approach.
The approach was developed by journalists and conflict mediators Hélène Biandudi Hofer, a former WXXI journalist and documentary filmmaker, and Amanda Ripley, an author and journalist who has written for Time and The Atlantic, among other publications.
Good Conflict aims to help journalists adapt what they do for the current age of political polarization, based on what researchers now know about what humans need to thrive in a diverse, highly interdependent, information-saturated and fast-changing world. It helps reporters effectively apply insights from neuroscience and the practices of conflict mediation, solutions journalism, and social psychology to the storytelling process.
For the Beacon, the partnership represents a way to explore how people with different viewpoints can respectfully listen to and talk with one another, and hopefully begin to find some common ground. The non-ideological nonprofit news platform was launched in 2018 with the mission to foster open-minded discussion of important social, economic and political issues, providing a forum for diverse voices.
Abortion and faith
For many people who oppose abortion, it is a matter of religion belief. But not all religions oppose abortion. A number of religions and denominations are pro-choice including Conservative and Reform Judaism, the U.S. Presbyterian Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church. In Florida, in a lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor argues that the Florida law violates religious liberty by criminalizing abortion, which is permitted in Jewish law.
On June 24, the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade—resulting in both furor and vindication. The media played a role in exacerbating polar views, leaving little room for nuance and personal experiences on either side of the debate.
A Pew Research Center survey in May found that people’s views vary, even among Catholics. Overall, about three-quarters of U.S. Catholics (76 percent) say abortion should be illegal in some cases but legal in others. Just one-in-10 say abortion should be illegal in all cases, with no exceptions, while a similar share (13 percent) takes the position that abortion should be legal in all cases, without exceptions, the survey states.
Roughly seven in 10 Catholics say abortion should be legal if the pregnant woman’s life or health is threatened (69 percent), and two-thirds say it should be legal if the pregnancy is the result of rape (66 percent). At the same time, roughly two-thirds of Catholics say how long a woman has been pregnant should be a factor in determining abortion’s legality (63 percent), with larger shares opposing abortions in the late stages of a pregnancy than in the early stages.
Earlier Pew research has shown a wide range of opinion on abortion across the U.S. religious landscape that includes Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
Voices of faith
For the video project, Good Conflict and the Beacon posed questions to four faith leaders in Rochester to see what lies beneath the talking points. Among the questions: How does your religion view abortion? What is oversimplified about this issue? How do you think people with opposing beliefs view you? What do you want them to know? (Read interview transcripts with each faith leader.)
Melvin Cross Jr., founding and senior pastor of Glory House International, a nondenominational church located in the city’s center, recalls when the news broke about the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“I had so many mixed emotions and if I’m honest, I was excited and almost fearful all at the same time. The reason being is, I value life in such a beautiful way,” Cross says. “At the same time, I know the state of our nation, how fragile it is and how the systems need a drastic upgrade. So, I’m like, this is my value system, but this is my heart. I know there’s so many moving pieces to it. There’s not really one … And I know other pastors might disagree with me, there’s not one place to stand on because it’s just so many vacillating and moving spots.”
Rev. Shari Halliday-Quan, lead minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, says her congregation also reflects a diversity of belief in all matters.
“The vast majority of us, and Unitarian Universalism at large, believes that access to abortion is not only something we believe in in spite of our religion, but as a matter of our faith, that bodily autonomy and access to health care and reproductive freedom and justice is a part of what it means to be a faithful person, that we see ourselves in connection with other people,” she says.
“And so, even if you’re one of the rare people for whom abortion is not something that personally affects you … we do talk about abortion as rare, but quite frankly, it impacts an immense number of people, and the vast majority of Americans know and love someone who has had an abortion. So, for us, as an article of our faith, keeping it as safe and accessible as possible is a priority for us.”
The Islamic position on the issue is pro-life. Tabassum Javed, past president and board member of the Islamic Center of Rochester, who often speaks for his congregation, says he expected support for the overturn.
“That was not the case. It was very nuanced and it was very diverse,” Javed says. “There were people who said that this was something that was snatched away from women. It was a right that should have continued, and therefore something almost to the point of saying that this was injustice. Even some of the people who came up to me used that word too, where they felt that this was unjust.”
In Islam, life is worthy because it’s been bestowed by God and is to be cherished, Javed says. But at the same time, Islam also accommodates deviations from that position based on certain circumstances—if a mother’s life is in danger or if a physician decides that a fetus will not be viable, placing a mother in danger. Muslim scholars say Allah blows the soul in a fetus at four months.
Despite its pro-life stance, the Islamic Center did not get involved when Planned Parenthood decided to locate in Brighton and pro-life groups asked the center to sign a petition against the plan.
“I said, ‘Islamic Center could not be representing one opinion on this because within our congregation of a thousand people, you could have so many people who have a nuanced view of this,’” Javed says. “And then why would Islamic Center become involved in signing a petition against the town of Brighton when it is a town planning issue?”
For Jews, life begins with the first breath. Peter Stein, who serves as senior rabbi at Temple B’rith Kodesh, was mentored in his pro-choice advocacy by a pastor who was active before Roe v. Wade. Stein found the moment of this summer’s Supreme Court ruling to be heartbreaking and scary.
“The scary part for me was I spent all these years knowing the history of what once was, and now it seemed like all of a sudden, we were thrown back into all of those realities,” he says.
Temple B’rith Kodesh’s congregation is diverse, Stein says, with different political opinions and identities, and the decision did not result in unanimous opinion one way or the other.
“Women have the ability to make decisions for themselves, they have bodily autonomy, they have the ability to control what happens with their bodies. And so, yes, there’s sensitivity,” he says. “Yes, there’s people who very fiercely and strongly may have a different point of view. I can’t let that get in the way of the fight for safety and the fight for equality.”
Oversimplifying the issue
Many believe the abortion debate has been oversimplified in absolute terms—pro-life or pro-choice—for an issue whose morality is complex and can be viewed in myriad ways.
“I think the language of pro-life and pro-choice is deeply unhelpful,” Halliday-Quan says. “Pitting personal freedom against the idea that life is precious, which of course it is, is actually not being fair or just to, I think, either side of the argument.”
She adds: “When it comes to pro-choice, this idea that personal freedom is the most important thing lacks nuance also. I and Unitarian Universalism believe deeply in bodily autonomy. So, it is true. We do not believe that one person’s body should be forced to do something for the benefit of another person.”
Cross says oversimplification exists on the pro-life side as well.
“I’m a pro-lifer, even though I feel like I’m more moderate than anything, but we assume that people are out just to harm or to take life, when we don’t take into consideration the backdrop of circumstances, the socioeconomic class of people, sometimes the tragedies around experiences. We have to take those things into consideration,” he says. “
A University of Notre Dame study in 2020 titled “How Americans Understand Abortion” found that surveys miss the ways that Americans offer disclaimers and caveats, contradict themselves, hedge their responses, change their minds, and think through things in real time. Most Americans do not hold inflexible, polar views toward abortion but multidimensional ones.
“Mutually exclusive labels like ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ fit Americans and the abortion issue imperfectly, at best,” the report states. “They signal extremes and belief consistency, when most Americans hold neither extreme nor consistent beliefs toward abortion.”
“Our country has come to a point of my way or the highway kind of mentality, and that’s why any person who condones abortion in any of the circumstances become murderers,” Javed says. “When you have rhetoric like that, it does not leave much room for accommodation or for a middle position, and that’s why it gets oversimplified.”
Stein reminds of the danger in saying a decision to abort is an easy one and assigning a decision to religious beliefs.
“Each one of us has many different aspects to our identity and it’s the fullness of that that comes into making these sorts of decisions,” he says.
Listening to each other
After speaking with these faith leaders and in acknowledgement of nuanced views on the abortion debate, the Beacon and Good Conflict convened the small group—14 people of faith—to share their views in confidence. Participants were asked not to debate or argue their position, but listen, clarify, dig deeper and check in with the other.
They were trained briefly on looping, a communication method similar to active listening, and a technique that Good Conflict uses regularly in its training sessions. Developed by Gary Friedman and Jack Himmelstein of the Center for Understanding in Conflict, looping gets under talking points, building trust, creating clarity and invoking curiosity even in disagreement.
After an initial discussion on media coverage of the debate, members were asked to respond to a question that asked about personal experiences that shaped their views on abortion and loop the person who spoke before them.
For Neece, who has run into Benedict since the event and looks forward to more conversations, active listening wasn’t a new concept.
“I don’t think I (have) employed it as much as I could or should. Especially when you’re addressing a loaded kind of question or discussion, I think it can be especially good,” she says. “I liked what I heard. I was very touched by the kinds of things that people mentioned and shared. I think that shows the power of that process and the trust that somehow emerged in that room.”
Benedict, who with his wife is involved with pre-marital counseling, advises young couples on the power of active listening. He points to the respect in the room and a refreshing opportunity to hear a mix of views.
“I was of the mind already that 80 to 90 percent of the people of this world are very reasonable people,” Benedict says. “This was encouraging to see that there were different takes on things.”
The discussion has given him much food for thought, he says. Benedict’s exchange was with an individual with an opposing view on abortion, and he found more similarity than differences in that exchange. Choosing to listen and understand is the way forward on divisive issues, Benedict believes.
However, Benedict wonders if forums like the one Beacon and Good Conflict hosted would only draw out the conscientious and the self-aware because they want to be understanding.
“The idea of fostering more of these discussion groups I think is only positive, but (would) we only get the people that really want to be part of it, that are going to be listening, respectful people?” Benedict says. “That’s a good question, I guess.”
Look for details soon on a Beacon event in early 2023 that will further explore the connections between religious belief and abortion.